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Radicalisation at universities or radicalisation by universities?

How a student‟s use of a library book became a “major Islamist plot”

By Rod Thornton
School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom

Paper prepared for the Critical Studies on Terrorism on Teaching About Terrorism panel at the British International Studies Association Conference, University of Manchester, April 2011.


In May 2008, on the campus of the University of Nottingham, two men of ethnic minority background - a student and an administrator - were arrested and held for six days under the Terrorism Act 2000. Their crime was to have in their possession three documents – all of which were, in fact, available from their own university‟s library. The police had made their arrests based on erroneous evidence provided by two men: the Registrar of the University of Nottingham and an academic within the institution. Subsequently, despite being made aware of the mistakes it had made, the university not only refused to apologise to the two arrested men but it also began to resort to defensive measures that attempted to discredit the names both of the two accused and of innocent university employees. Untruth piled on untruth until a point was reached where the Home Office itself farcically came to advertise the case as „a major Islamist plot‟. Many lessons can be learnt from what happened at the University of Nottingham. This incident is an indication of the way in which, in the United Kingdom of today, young Muslim men can become so easily tarred with the brush of being „terrorists‟. [1]

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. George Orwell, 1984. [2]
Life is always simple for the prejudiced. Indeed, the very point about a pre-judgement is that it is a conclusion reached before the complexity of the world is allowed to make any difference. The facts are forced to fit a pre-formed picture. Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St Paul‟s Cathedral. [3]

This is not a normal academic article. It does not pretend to be anything other than a description of events. Nevertheless, I believe (and I apologise for the use of the first person, but it is unavoidable throughout) that this article is important. The story I relate here stems from the arrest of two men on suspicion of terrorist-related offences on the campus of the University of Nottingham in May 2008. Both were released without charge after six days. The events surrounding their arrest may be simply a story, but it is a salutary one: salutary for anyone involved in the teaching, researching or studying of terrorism or its related issues; salutary for anyone involved in the administration of universities or ministries of state; and salutary too for the police and security services.

In writing this article I may be accused of „bringing my university into disrepute‟. My contract of employment warns me against this. I am, though, not bringing my university into disrepute; merely those who run it. There is a difference. As an alumnus myself of the University of Nottingham, I would heartily say that it is a very good university, all things considered. I even took a drop in rank and pay to come back to Nottingham as a lecturer in 2007 – I had been a senior lecturer at King‟s College London.

I must also establish my bone fides in writing this article. I am not a usual suspect in terms of being a „rabble rouser‟. I am not some shrill „lefty‟ activist. I am a lecturer in International Security and Terrorism, and I came late to academia having first spent nine years as an ordinary „squaddie‟ in a British Army infantry regiment. During my service I spent three years in Northern Ireland in a counter-terrorism role. This included a six-month period in a police station in West Belfast (Springfield Road) operating in an intelligence capacity. I was working there alongside members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (as it was called then). I slept in the same dormitories as these policemen, ate in their canteen and was constantly in their company. The only time that I ever stepped out of this police station during this entire six months (bar five days leave) was to go out on patrol with these same policemen. Thus I got to know something about counter-terrorism policing above and beyond what any soldier in Northern Ireland would naturally learn. Thus, in writing this article, I at least have some grasp of the issues involved. [4]

I left the army as a sergeant having once been awarded a Queen‟s Gallantry Medal by the Queen herself. Again, decorated sergeants from British Army infantry regiments who have been involved at the coal-face of counter-terrorism do not normally make good „rebel‟ material at universities. Nevertheless, I appear to be such a rebel.



  1. ^ . This article could not have come about without the support of my friends in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. I owe them a lot. I also thank Professor David Miller at the University of Strathclyde for his support and for creating the „Teaching-About-Terrorism‟ forum. Georóid Ó Cuinn, a PhD student from the School of Law at the University of Nottingham, also deserves a special mention. I also thank Rizwaan Sabir. The energy he is expending in his desire to see his name cleared is an example to us all.
  2. ^ . George Orwell, 1984 (London: Penguin 2008), p.37.
  3. ^ . Giles Fraser, „Islamophobia is the moral blind spot of today‟s Britain‟, The Guardian, 22 January 2011, p.34.
  4. ^ . I have also suffered the results of terrorism. I lost six friends to a bomb in 1998. I am no defender of terrorists.

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